5-year-old Lilit is visibly enjoying her lunch, and even asks for a second helping. She is the oldest of 21 children attending the remote Chinchin kindergarten, and is very chatty – even at lunchtime. Her daily menu consists of a variety of nutritious components necessary for raising healthy kids – vegetables, soup, dairy, fruits, and healthy snacks. The meals are provided free of charge by FAR’s Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Program (BCPP),* which aims to reduce child poverty and its profound effects on children’s health and growth.

Lilit’s classmate Tatul is also very energetic during lunchtime and asks for more salads. This has not always been the case for him. His mother Mrs. Nvard recalls, “I remember times when my kids would come home and complain about the food they had that day. To my question, ‘What was for lunch?’ they would always answer ‘pasta’ or ‘peas.’ I am certainly happy to see these changes.” Mrs. Nvard tells us that the nutrition program for the children has also made a great impact on her life at home. “Now, in addition to the main dish, I’m also trying to make veggie salads as often as possible,” she claims. Moreover, her son is now so used to nutritious and delicious foods at school that he demands them at home. “Now when I make a cake or a cookie at home, my Tatul takes a bite and turns to me with serious eyes: “Mom, this is not the way our Mrs. Gayane makes it in the kindergarten. I won’t eat it unless you learn how to cook it the right way,’’ giggles Mrs. Nvard.

Chinchin is one of the communities where in 2013, FAR conducted a holistic research within BCPP’s healthcare component to identify the underlying reasons behind undernutrition in Berd, and the surrounding communities. Undernutrition– defined as inadequate food and/or nutrition intake, often resulting in low weight – is the most prevalent type of malnutrition in developing countries like Armenia, and is a common public health issue. It can often lead to major health problems, such as anemia and stunted growth, which can further lead to chronic fatigue, exhaustion, and low cognitive functioning.

FAR’s 2013 study was conducted based on the data published in the Armenian Demographic and Health Survey back in 2005-2010 (ADHS), which said that 35.6% of Armenian children under 5 had anemia (2005), and 14.6% had stunting (2010). The numbers indicated that the condition could also affect the children’s physical growth and brain development. To see where the numbers stood at the targeted communities before launching the healthcare initiative in 2013, FAR Healthcare team conducted blood (hemoglobin) and anthropometric measurements, and diagnosed parasitic infections among 670 children of 6 months to 6 years. FAR discovered that the prevalence of anemia, stunting and intestinal parasites varied considerably between the urban and rural communities. For instance, the rate of the stunted children under six in Berd was 11.0% and in rural communities 8.7%; the rate of anemia was 15.9% and 20.8%, respectively.

Based on the study and the needs assessment results, FAR developed a 5-year program aimed at improving children’s health within the target communities. The program consisted of 3 key pillars: the improvement of preschool children’s nutrition (providing a balanced and healthy diet); healthcare service development (trainings for local doctors; providing necessary medical supplies); and trainings and seminars for parents, including mothers like Mrs. Nvard.

Three years later in 2016, FAR conducted an interim evaluation among the 1,105 children between 6 months and 8 years of age and registered a great progress – the anemia among the children who benefited from the program had declined. However, concerns about the stunted growth have not yet subsided.

“Through our first study, we realized that anemia and stunted growth are not only connected with the socio-economic conditions of the family. For instance, we found the problem among children living in better conditions. This means that besides the specific quality and quantity of the food given to children, the awareness among parents, foster families, and community healthcare specialists is very important. This way they could reveal the problems and mitigate the issue,” says FAR’s Health Programs Coordinator Hambardzum Simonyan highlighting the importance of the diverse tools employed to achieve the great results: “It’s again the balanced food menu applied at the targeted kindergartens, trainings for both parents and community healthcare specialists, etc. Our efforts were paid off. The proof is in the results we registered during our second study. Ultimately, the kids who attended kindergartens within the scope of our program had shown better indicators than those who did not.”

*Breaking the Cycle of Poverty Program (BCPP) is a multidimensional FAR project addressing child poverty in the region of Tavush, sponsored by the Edward and Helen Mardigian Foundation.